2020 is now literally a Black Mirror episode
Charlie Brooker has made a Netflix special about 2020.
Charlie Brooker, the British satirist behind Black Mirror, the rather serious anthology series about technology gone wrong. 2020’s compared to Black Mirror so often it’s cliché. Now it’s basically in the show’s canon.
Death to 2020, now streaming, differs from its sister on Netflix in both tone and format. But intact is Brooker’s eye for dystopia within both the absurd and mundane.
It’s a comedic documentary, narrated deadpan from the future by Lawrence Fishbourne. Brooker’s offscreen director interviews both important and ordinary people from 2020 — all played by actors and comedians.
Most don’t stray far from the tropes, but instead commit to them successfully. Hugh Grant inhabits a posh, pretentious historian. Leslie Jones’ behavioral psychologist voices the “lol nothing matters” sentiment that’s the closest America has left to a national consensus. Tracy Ullman steps into the shoes of Queen Elizabeth the First (Part 2), who first met Joe Biden when he attended her coronation as an old man.
Not all the film’s characters land: Lisa Kudrow plays an obligatory Kellyanne Conway-type that never finds a new angle in well-trodden territory.
More frustratingly, Joe Keery shows up as a politically correct YouTube millionaire, supposedly representing Millennial gig economy workers. It’s a cheap shot against a cash-strapped generation that’s survived multiple wars, recessions, corporate monopolization, political polarization, a pandemic, and getting repeatedly conflated with Generation Z — while facing a job market where “experience” has become the de facto minimum wage.
Thankfully, however, there’s far more hits than misses. The documentary’s deadpan stylings highlight the absurdity of the year’s events. Many of the individual jokes come quick and steely, worth a genuine laugh out loud. Cristin Milioti casually shifts between dull “soccer mom” and Nazi. Kumail Nanjiani’s tech entrepreneur takes a rapid heel turn from an empathetic introduction.
A few times, the film does try to push beyond deadpan into more outwardly absurd territory. Those cases have more mixed results, like a sketch about Boris Johnson transferring his soul into a Black man’s body.
The special’s focus is firmly on laughs — at least for now. It also keeps one eye on future viewers, on anyone who might watch this wondering what the heck happened in 2020. There’s a sense of responsibility hanging over it, as it tries to convey the magnitude of this year’s government incompetence and individual insanity.
Nearly every Black Mirror episode introduces a sci-fi element for humanity to abuse. The coronavirus is this episode’s break from reality, a freak fantasy occurrence used to widen the cracks in our social fabric until they’re impossible to ignore. And this time, instead of a metaphor for social media, Brooker takes aim at the genuine article.
But it’s with the murder of George Floyd that Death to 2020 shows its hand. There are no jokes as the film covers an innocent man’s murder and the protests it sparked. Brooker is a satirist, but while he takes aim at all sides, he doesn’t draw false equivalencies between them. He knows when to laugh and when to take a stand.
Everyone (not trapped in a far-right bubble) already knows what happened to George Floyd. But future generations might not. And after they watch Death to 2020, they will.
There’s an undercurrent of anger throughout the film, breaking occasionally. And much of it is delivered by Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson’s ostensibly playing a journalist, but it’s easy to imagine he’s speaking off the cuff as himself. After some sharp early laughs, he gets serious and never really stops. ‘But, you know, in some ways I prefer the coronavirus to the police,’ he notes. ‘At least it doesn’t pretend it’s here to help. It doesn’t drive around the neighborhood with “Protect and Serve” painted on its side before it kills you.’
At 70 minutes, the documentary can’t cover everything that’s happened. There are earlier, entertainment-focused sections about the Oscars, Tiger King, and Meghan Markle. Then Chadwick Boseman’s death passes by without a line, and it feels like an omission. And a spotlight on the US and UK might irritate… well, everyone else.
But the brevity is key to making this movie enjoyable. Even the wittiest asides only distract from reality for so long: You’re reliving a train wreck that you’re still trapped in.
Death to 2020 is a Trojan horse. Nobody’s clamoring to relive the past twelve months. We may know it’s important to take away some kind of lesson from this collective nightmare. But we’re using our willpower just to read the news. When we log onto Netflix, the period romcom is more tempting than a retrospective on Trump, Floyd, and the coronavirus. By focusing on laughs first, Brooker slips in some last words on an awful, awful year.
When Jackson’s told his interview is for a look back at 2020, he notes: ‘Why in the f**k would you wanna do that?’
Because, at some point, we need to. And, thanks to Death to 2020, we can have a good time getting started. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s cathartic to laugh about this year. If we can start looking back, maybe that means we’re almost out of the wreckage.
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